Disability Rights Policy Takes Center Stage In 2020 Democratic Presidential Primary

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We look at the major disability policies being discussed this election season. (Andreas Solaro/AFP via Getty Images)
We look at the major disability policies being discussed this election season. (Andreas Solaro/AFP via Getty Images)

Here & Now's Tonya Mosley talks with Rebecca Cokley, director of the Disability Justice Initiative at the Center for American Progress, about the major disability policies being discussed this election season and what the disability community is looking for in each candidates' platform.

Rebecca Cokley (Courtesy)
Rebecca Cokley (Courtesy)


Tonya Mosley: “Let's start with Senator [Elizabeth Warren]. We know that she used to be a special education teacher. These are issues that she's been very vocal about. Her plan has been particularly applauded. Tell us why.” 

Rebecca Cokley: “There's a couple of reasons. I think first and foremost, you actually used the term special education. And I think that's important to note because I think it highlights something unique about this election season. In particular, Senator Warren very early on in the campaign would refer to herself as a special needs teacher. And that sort of description is considered pretty offensive by people with disabilities. Our needs aren't special. Our needs are the same as everybody else's. Just how we access those issues and those rights is different. And the community actually directly reached out to Senator Warren and said, 'Please refer to yourself as a special education teacher, not a special needs teacher, that term doesn't describe us.' And she took that feedback very positively and very proactively changed her language, changed her rhetoric, changed even the language immediately on her campaign's website to be more reflective of the feedback that she actually took from disabled people, which I think actually shows sort of a next step in the progress being made by people with disabilities. And, you know, she is one of eight candidates so far who have released plans that incorporate the issues of people with disabilities. And then we've had three other candidates release sort of guiding principles that they're thinking about at this point in time. It's an exciting time.”

Mosley: “Let's talk a little bit more about those plans. Last week, Senator Amy Klobuchar also released her disability plan. It was not well received. What was missing?” 

Cokley: “I think the challenge with Senator Klobuchar's plan, while very thoughtful and very wide reaching, is there were a number of things that were very concerning to the disability community, particularly as it related to mental health and to health care in general. While she did support language supporting the institutionalization of people with disabilities, her mental health plan, which was dropped previously, does support repealing what's called the IMD exclusion inside of Medicaid policy, which prevents Medicaid dollars going to the institutionalization of disabled people. At the same time, there are certain parts of her plan focusing on outpatient treatment of people with mental illness that are very concerning because they actually involve law enforcement in the dispersing of medications for people with disabilities. And let's be honest, when it comes to law enforcement in the disability community, we typically don't have positive outcomes. We know that roughly, from NPR and The Washington Post's own reporting, roughly 50 percent of individuals who are killed by law enforcement are people with disabilities. And yet when you look at the justice that follows that, often what we see is, in fact, not justice.”

Mosley: “I want to ask you about candidate Andrew Yang. He shared with us that his son has autism. He shared that with the world. And he released a health care policy plan with a section on disabilities. But there was some pushback that this plan was confusing, specifically how disability benefits would be impacted by the center of Yang's policy, which is the universal basic income. Your thoughts?”

Cokley: “It's always exciting to see people with a personal connection to the disability community engaging in these conversations. I think, however, it's been a real challenge to understand just the impact that the [universal basic income] proposal put forth by Yang and his campaign would have on the disability community. You know, a thousand dollars a month, while helpful for a number of people, if it doesn't stack on top of somebody's health care or somebody’s lighting and heating assistance or their nutrition benefits, that thousand dollars is not going to make a significant difference. Additionally, for people with disabilities who might actually have asset limits or restrictions on the amount of money that they can have in a savings account that [universal basic income] would actually take away benefits.”

Mosley: “You've written about the economic impact for people living with disabilities in the way of health care and other costs, as you just mentioned. This is a heavy burden for many who have limited incomes, if incomes at all. And you've argued that candidates need to address this. Can you tell us more about what you want to hear and see from the candidates?”

Cokley: “What we want to hear and see from the candidates is we want a seat at the table. We're tired of people with disabilities being treated as the literal or the figurative short bus, and people talking to parents or providers or caregivers. While those voices are relevant, they shouldn't be centered in a conversation that directly impacts the lives of people with disabilities. And so for us, in thinking about the economic issues, there's a hashtag that we often use on Twitter, it's C-R-I-P-T-A-X or the #CripTax. And there's research coming out that shows that roughly every person with a disability spends between one thousand and seven thousand dollars a year on unreimbursable expenses as it relates to being a person with a disability. It might be software that you need for your computer to be able to operate it at home. For me as a little person, it means that I spend roughly twice as much on clothing as the next person because I have to pay to have every piece of my clothing altered. For somebody with a vision impairment, it may be the use of a magnifier or other assistive technology. It really varies. I mean, we see today where roughly one third of GoFundMe accounts are tied to health care. I can count on one hand off the top of my head five disabled people I know who are crowdsourcing to purchase a wheelchair. And people often don't think that, A) These items are expensive. B) They don't realize that life without these items is a crisis. And so I think there's still such a lack of understanding about the actual tangible lives of people with disabilities, and frankly, the actual cost of being a person with a disability. I think there's a lot of expectation that, 'Oh, if you're disabled, the government takes care of everything for you.' When we know that that's actually not the case, and we know that the average person can't live on Social Security benefits. Nobody is getting wealthy off of Social Security.”

Mosley: “I want to ask you about something else. Late last year, the Trump administration proposed changes to Social Security that could leave many people living with disabilities without financial support. You know, I'm thinking about disability policy and wondering if it has become a partisan issue. And really what's the future of actually getting any proposed policy passed?” 

Cokley: “I think there's a very ... Disability has always had a unique role in its presentation as being a bipartisan issue. The [Americans with Disabilities Act] was passed with a number of Republican lead sponsors among them, you know, Senator Bob Dole. And it was passed under an administration governed by a president, George H.W. Bush, who was the father of a child with a disability. And so I think there has been a tremendous challenge in maintaining that sense of disability as a bipartisan issue across both sides. I think as we continue to see, frankly, the media posit people with disabilities as fakers, takers and money makers where that isn't the case, we're still fundamentally struggling to access our rights on a daily basis. This is an election year. Over 60% of polling places still have one sort of impediment in one way, shape or form for disabled people being able to access their right to vote. The ADA is 30. This is unconscionable. But yet, we continue to see people with disabilities treated as if we're acting or asking for special treatment instead of just the same rights that anybody else has.”

Mosley: “Moving forward, you mentioned that many, the majority of the candidates running for president, have some sort of policy or they've given some sort of statement that it is an issue that they're working on or it's important to them. What issues will you be watching for as we move through the 2020 election season and that you'd like for all of the candidates to take on?” 

Cokley: “You know, I think writ large, as we've seen candidates talk about their economic agendas, people with disabilities are still paid subminimum wage. People with disabilities are still prevented from being able to save money or own a home. There is still a challenge in terms of accessing the general education curriculum for a lot of students. We have states right now that are actually passing laws saying that in order to enroll this next year in school, you have to disclose if you've received any mental health treatment. So we still have so much further to go. And I think it's really important for our candidates to not be setting disability aside as, 'Oh, it's just for those, that small percentage of people, when we know that a third of American households have a person with a disability.' And so disability issues are Americans' issues.”

Cristina Kim produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Peter O'Dowd.

This segment aired on January 16, 2020.


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